Glacier, Yellowstone National Parks in winter splendor!

Izzac Walton Lodge, an old Great Northern Railway hotel, is open for lodging, dining and cross-country ski touring in Essex, MT, on very south side of Glacier Park.

Going to the Sun Highway, closed in winter but for snowshoers and cross-country skiers, at Lake McDonald Lodge inside Glacier Park; Logan Pass just 21 miles ahead!
Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, looking northeast from Going to the Sun Highway.
Bighorn sheep ram poses for photo in Gardiner, Montana, just north of the park entrance.
Elk can be found in the hundreds around Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs/Yellowstone National Park.
Bison cross the Lamar River in the Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Plan now for winter splendor in Glacier, Yellowstone National Parks!

Two weeks ago, we headed north up Interstate 5, across Central Oregon and central Washington, meeting friends in Spokane, then caravanning with additional friends to Whitefish Mountain Resort, Whitefish, Montana, just west of Glacier National Park. Our intentions were two-fold, both to enjoy and ski Whitefish, and see the two majestic national parks in their winter glory.

Whitefish is just 25 miles west of West Glacier, MT, with drive-in access along 11 miles of Going to the Sun Highway beside Lake McDonald, to Lake McDonald Lodge where the highway is closed by snow in the winter.

I took a short cross country ski tour along marked trails around Apgar Village which fanned out along McDonald Creek and the lakefront. Then, I drove my car 11 miles to Lake McDonald Lodge, parked, and skied about a mile up the closed Going to the Sun Highway. Those with real energy could continue another 20 miles to Logan Pass – not for me, however. Additional cross country and snowshoe trails also tour along the northern edge of Lake McDonald.

Returning west along Lake McDonald, I stopped at numerous turnouts for stunning photos along this lovely lake, seeing only a few other visitors inside the park. Two mule deer provided comic relief, skittering across a closed, icy road and into the woods. Had I been smart enough to bring my binoculars, I’m sure several of the large raptors soaring overhead were bald eagles.

US Highway 2 skirts the southern edge of this huge park, and one can drive about halfway across the southern boundary to the tiny town of Essex and stop at the Izaak Walton Inn, an old Great Northern Railway hotel converted to lodging both within the hotel and in converted cabooses and locomotives spread throughout the woods. The Inn offers an extensive set of cross country and snowshoe trails fanning out into the park’s Southern reaches. Meals in the Inn’s dining room are a treat, and a night spent in an old caboose a lovely pleasure.

After several days of skiing and noshing at Whitefish Mountain Resort, we headed southbound to Yellowstone National Park, about an 8 hour drive away. Coming from Glacier, our options were to head into the north entrance, to Mammoth Hot Springs, which we have done the last three or four visits, or, head to West Yellowstone stone on the parks west side.  Due to time constraints, we chose the West Yellowstone option, and headed for our favorite hotel, the Stagecoach Inn. Cross country ski and snowshoe trails extend along the parks western edge, and into the eastern portion of the park where both elk and bison are occasionally spotted, just blocks from the hotel.

A variety of concessionaires offer guided tours in cozy coaches into the park, as well as snowmobile tours into the park, all the way to the Old Faithful area. A word to the wise – on this trip, temperatures in western Montana stayed around -15 to +5° most of the time we were there. Three years earlier, we spent the night in West Yellowstone when the temperature reached 40 below zero. Even AAA has a hard time jumpstarting cars in those temperatures. Prepare, and dress, accordingly.

A year earlier, we also spent two days in the park’s Gardiner, MT/Mammoth Hot Springs entryway. We found a lovely hotel, the Park Inn Yellowstone, right across from the park boundary. In winter, roads are open through the Mammoth Hop Springs thermal features, and US Highway 212 is plowed all the way to the Park’s northeast entryway, allowing unfettered access to the Lamar Valley and frequent wolf sightings. That year, as we had experienced in several previous winter visits, we counted hundreds of elk, scores of bison and a handful of bighorn sheep. Don’t be surprised to be stuck in a traffic jam caused by 2000 pound bison lumbering along snowy roads.

What to take: Binoculars and camera, of course, all of your cold-winter clothing, and skis or showshoes if you are into that.  Chains for your vehicle, even if you have a 4-wheel drive; jumper cables make sense if temps are predicted down to -20 or lower!

Where to stay: In Whitefish, the Grouse Mountain Lodge (grousemountainlodge.com/, 406-897-4960) is a superior choice for cozy and classy accommodations in a lodge-like setting (Whitefish offers other good motel choices).  On the southern edge of Glacier Park, no more unique inns exist than the Izaac Walton Inn (izaakwaltoninn.com/).  In West Yellowstone, we have enjoyed the Stagecoach Inn (yellowstoneinn.com/; 406.646.7381) several times; in Gardiner, the Park Hotel Yellowstone, parkhotelyellowstone.com, 406-223-7007; in Yellowstone Park the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Old Faithful Snow Lodge are the only winter choices (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com/).

For more information on Glacier National Park, (406) 888-7800, nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/winter.htm.  For snowcoach service into the park, the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce can offer choices of private snowcoach providers, (406) 646.7701.  For Yellowstone’s North park entrance (Mammoth Hot Springs) and south park entrance (Flagg Ranch/Teton Park) lodging and snow coach service, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge stays, contact Zanterra, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com, (307) 344.7901.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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